News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
10 Feb 2018
6:06 am

Prince Cyril vs villain Zuma

William Saunderson-Meyer

We have had a philosopher-king and a clown as leaders. Whether Cyril Ramaphosa can be the hero, remains to be seen.

Outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma stands alongside presidential hopeful Cyril Ramaphosa to address delegates at the ANC National Elective Conference at Nasrec, Johannesburg on 16 December 2017. Picture: Yeshiel Panchia

The departure of President Jacob Zuma is imminent.

With his early exit, history again executes one of those neat, ironical loops.

The man who humiliated former president Thabo Mbeki by insisting that he should not be allowed to eke out the final months of his term is, in turn, humiliated.

His own party will have ejected him a year ahead of his scheduled departure.

The wily manipulator who managed to postpone and sidestep serious criminal charges, will have been brought down. Not by the law enforcement institutions that he had on puppet strings, but his inner circle’s betrayal. It’s the fate of politicians who become despised.

Julius Caesar, Robert Mugabe and, now Zuma, all found that protocols become irrelevant when your comrades turn against you. Mugabe defied the world and his people for decades.

He presided with impunity over genocide and starvation. But his ouster came swiftly and inevitably when he tried to place his wife in charge of the feeding trough, ahead of lieutenants who had been awaiting their turn.

Zuma subverted the constitution. He abetted state capture and corruption.

And then, in his most audacious move, to keep the extraction processes rolling, he tried to ensure that his former wife would succeed him.

He failed when Cyril Ramaphosa narrowly beat Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

But with the all-powerful national executive committee of the ANC still tilted in his favour, Zuma must have felt confident that at least he had time to fashion some post-presidential immunity.

But once power starts shifting, it shifts fast. Zuma has been outmanoeuvred.

Reportedly, he keeps plaintively telling the emissaries sent to solicit his resignation that he has never been found guilty of anything and that the people love him.

It is delusion of epic proportions, grandiosity on a Shakespearean scale.

In fact, it is a reminder that whatever the Bard’s dubious usefulness is in a failing education system, in which most kids are barely able to read and write, he remains relevant for understanding the political world. Mbeki often quoted Shakespeare.

Presciently, his favourite play was Coriolanus, in which the eponymous, aristocratic Roman leader is thwarted and deposed by populist rabble-rousers.

Enter Zuma, stage left. Although Zuma has similarities to the rotund, self-important, boastful and cowardly Falstaff – a comic character who appears in a number of Shakespeare’s plays – no doubt a bitter Mbeki would view him as the traitorous Brutus, in Julius Caesar.

Or maybe as Macbeth. Macbeth, after all, is about a man whose ambition causes him to murder the king who pulled him out of obscurity.

One scene perfectly encapsulates the present moment.

Faced with her husband’s increasingly distraught behaviour when he sees the ghost of the murdered Banquo, Lady Macbeth addresses her dinner guests, entreating them to leave. Shakespeare’s words could as appropriately be addressed to Zuma: He grows worse and worse.

Question enrages him. At once, good night. Stand not upon the order of your going, But go at once.

We have had a philosopher-king and a clown as leaders.

Whether Ramaphosa can be the hero, remains to be seen. We shouldn’t allow our justified antipathies towards Zuma to make us foolishly euphoric about what his successor might achieve.


William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer